Shiba (Tetsuro Tanba) is a wandering samurai who's seen it all. He stumbles onto some peasants who have taken the magistrate's daughter hostage in hopes of ending the corruptive leadership that plagues their land. What begins as a spectator sport and a roof over his head for Shiba turns into him fully supporting the peasants and their cause. Two other samurai; Sakura (Isamu Nagato) another wanderer with a guilty conscience and Kikyo (Mikijiro Hira) a samurai who milks the magistrate for all he's worth eventually join up with Shiba. An epic duel to the death lies ahead for the three samurai as the magistrate will stop at nothing to get revenge.
Three Outlaw Samurai begins in simple yet extravagant fashion. We see Shiba take a few steps in the mud followed by an extremely loud music cue and the title card written in Japanese Kanji. Six seconds into this chanbara film and I already know I'm going to love it. The film buys its time though as the first half of the film is mostly very talkative and swords are drawn only briefly before lengthy discussions begin once again. The storytelling is a high point as loyalty and the overall cause for all of this mayhem are always both relevant to the events taking place on screen. The cinematography is also brilliant, especially since this is the debut of Hideo Gosha. The well-choreographed and intense swordplay sequences are always captured with the most precise camera placement.
Lighting and shadows also play a big part in how the film is presented visually. The one-shot sword fight in the two-story whore house is the best example of this. Right down to the drastic lighting on Kikyo's eyes before everything goes to hell, Three Outlaw Samurai is the type of film fans of samurai, foreign, and great cinema in general dream of. There's something completely gratifying about blood presented in black and white, as well. Maybe it's because it reminds me of the Crazy 88 fight The Bride has at the tea house in Kill Bill, but the crimson liquid almost seems more gratifying in grayscale at least when it comes to older and more legendary motion pictures.
The best exchange of dialogue comes when Sakura is running across a field to support Kikyo and Shiba in the final battle. Sakura yells, "Hey Shiba! I've done you wrong! I deserve to die! Kill Me!" In the heat of battle, Shiba merely replies, "I'm busy at the moment."
While Three Outlaw Samurai may seem a bit slow at first, your patience will be rewarded. You'll become attached to the characters of Sakon Shiba, Kyojuro Sakura, and Einosuke Kikyo, get absorbed in their cause, and understand their decisions. As the swordplay and action becomes more frequent, you'll realize how truly amazing this film really is. Three Outlaw Samurai is a beautiful, well-written, and just a fantastic experience overall that is for fans of Seven Samurai, Shogun Assassin, and The Last Samurai.
Despite how fantastic Three Outlaw Samurai looks and sounds, it literally has no special features. This is a bit unusual since nearly every Criterion Collection release I've come across is usually loaded with goodies. All that's included is the theatrical trailer and a booklet with an essay by film critic Bilge Ebiri. So hopefully you weren't looking forward to this release for the special features alone.
Three Outlaw Samurai is a black and white film that's unrated and presented in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack. It's approximately 93 minutes long, has a new English subtitle translation, and features high definition digital restoration. The film is now available on both Criterion Collection DVD and Blu-ray at most retail outlets and online stores.